My sermon for this week was based on John 21:1-19.
As I read the Gospel passage for this week, I was struck by the final words Jesus says to Peter: "Follow me".
They seem simple enough, but it got me to thinking. As a Christian, I call myself a follower of Christ, as I suspect many other Christians would also call themselves. But when was the last time any of us really thought about what it means to follow Christ? How do we follow him? What do we do to follow him? What does following Christ actually look like?
Does going to church every Sunday make us a follower of Christ? Does praying or reading Scripture make us a follower? Does wearing a cross? Does volunteering? Does celebrating Christmas or Easter?
These may all be part of following Christ, but respectively, I know many weekly churchgoers who pray and read Scripture regularly, yet who act fundamentally un-Christian the rest of the week. I know lots of people who wear crosses or have tattoos who just think it is a cool symbol. I know atheists who volunteer and who celebrate Christmas Easter, because hey, gifts and chocolate, what's not to love?
All this to say, I think most of us have only a superficial understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. We would be hard-pressed to say, "This is what defines me as a follower of Christ".
Part of that difficulty comes from the versatility of the word "follow". If you look it up in the dictionary, there are several different applications of the word:
1. to go or come after; to move or travel behind (the police followed the suspect)
2. come after in time or in order (Pope Francis followed Pope Benedict)
3. act according to an instruction or precept (I followed the recipe)
4. pay close attention to (I followed the discussion)
5. practice a trade, profession, course of action, study (I follow a strict exercise program)
Do any of those actually hit the nail on the head for you? Does any single one or combination of those uses of the word follow actually describe the way in which we follow Christ?
Certainly not for me. The way in which I follow Christ is more than just following instructions, coming after him in time, paying close attention to his teachings, and so on. Those are all part of the way in which I follow Christ, but it doesn't quite get at the heart of the matter, and I suspect it doesn't for you either.
I think the Gospel passage for today might go some way to explaining how we ought to follow Christ. The scenario is familiar to most of us: following Jesus' resurrection, he appears several times to his disciples. This time, the disciples all seem to have gone back to their day jobs. In this case, he appears to a group who have gone back to fishing, and Peter is among them.
After helping them net a miraculous catch (which in and of itself is a topic for a whole other sermon), Jesus has a heart-to-heart with Peter. He asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?", to which Peter answers, "You know that I love you". All three times, Jesus responds, "Feed my sheep".
There is something very touching and meaningful about this exchange. It is widely believed that in asking Peter this question three times, Jesus is cleaning the slate of the three times Peter denied him. Peter is given the opportunity to affirm Jesus rather than deny him.
But there is a consequence to this love. I have mentioned before that properly understood, love is a verb. It is an action word, not a noun. Love moves us to do things, to reach out, to act. It is not something that allows us to be inert. When Peter affirms that he loves Jesus, Jesus responds with a consequence: "Feed my sheep".
This might seem like a non sequitur because they are on the beach surrounded by fish, not sheep, but obviously Jesus is speaking metaphorically here. He is referring to God's flock, all of humanity. And at the end of his discussion, he says simply, "Follow me".
This is the consequence of being Christian, of being a follower of Christ. It is not about following rules, regulations and dogma to the letter. It is not about regular practices of piety. It is not about being able to regurgitate Scripture chapter and verse. I am not saying those things cannot be part of how you or I follow Christ, but I think we need to go deeper than that.
Following Christ is about feeding others, spiritually, emotionally and even physically if need be. It is about sharing the abundance of God's love with everyone you meet. It is about being as Christ was in the world, practicing acts of love, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, charity...all the things that are of God that Christ tried to make so obvious to the world.
I really hope that we can all reflect on what it means to follow someone. I know in today's culture, we would all prefer to lead. Followers are frowned upon while leaders are exalted, but even the most powerful leaders are still following the people who taught, shaped and molded them. Let us allow ourselves to be taught, shaped and molded by God, and reach out to feed his people today.